Something I learned today… (Part 1 of 2)

tastings mis en placeWell to be fair it was a few days back, but I just wanted to share some of the things I picked up at the Agave Seminar that took place at Anvil Bar and Refuge this past Tuesday (July 10, 1012).  The Agave industry’s most outspoken and brightest minds descended on Houston for a two hour plus lecture, which covered a broad range of subjects related to tequila and mezcal including production, terroir (yes tequila and mezcal have terroir), glassware, social impact, the effects of industrialization and spirituality.

We were greeted with a spread of tacos  from local favorite La Guadalupana, which particularly impressed panelist David Suro (he mentioned them at least twice!).  As we took to our seats, the first thing we noticed were the three tasting glasses covered by watch lenses, with a piece of some type of cured meat resting atop one of the lenses.  It turned out that it wasn’t jerky or cured ham, but a sliver of roasted agave heart from Chicicapa -the raw ingredient used to produce tequila and mezcal.  Ron Cooper reported to have carried this stuff with roasted agave hearthim all around the world and that the pieces we had in front of us had been with him on the road from Chichicapa, Oaxaca, to Taos, New Mexico, London, back to Mexico at Arandas, then Austin and finally here in Houston. To taste the Agave, we were asked to treat it kind of like an artichoke and bite into the meat, scraping it off, leaving the fibrous material behind (shown right).  The flavor was subtly complex, rich and sweet, with notes of honey and caramel accompanied by earthy, slightly smoky vegetal undertones.  Upon deeper inspection, hints of cocoa, vanilla, and a slight florality became apparent. Due to the long travels of this particular sample, “it had actually started to ferment a little bit”, making it slightly less sweet (according to Cooper) and adding a hint of bitterness on the finish. This was the first time I had ever tasted the ‘material prima,’ or raw ingredient of tequila and mezcal and it was a wonderful exercise.  To put in context, consider the raw ingredients of the most popular spirit categories, and I’m pretty sure you’ve tasted them at least once, probably without even considering that it was used in alcohol production.  Take corn, for example, it forms the base of American Bourbon, and many grain neutral spirits including vodka and sometimes gin.  Then there are the flavor grains of bourbon: wheat, rye and sometimes barley, all of which I’m sure you’ve tried at some point whether in a slice of bread or cup of soup. Consider now, grapes, the basic building block for most brandies, including Cognac and Pisco, and while you may have never had an actual Ugni Blanc grape (I sure haven’t) you still have a general idea what grapes taste like.  Same goes for the Rum category with sugar cane and molasses.  At the very least, these ingredients are available at most specialty food stores, but when was the last time you stumbled across sliced roasted agave heart?

We soon rolled into the tasting portion of the seminar, starting with Siembra Azul Blanco tequila, but before doing so, panelist Tomas Estes pointed out the need to expand the image of tequila into that of a world class spirit that should be sipped, savored and enjoyed rather than a one that is quickly shot often resulting in regrettable experiences. He also strongly pointed out that tequila’s heritage of image as a shooting spirit could not be denied and that it would be wrong to do so as it has been an important part of tequila and mezcal’s image for so long. According to Tomas, “its not just an American, college holiday south of the border phenomenon.. I see it all over the world, that sort of reckless abandoned drinking it at the end of the evening and regretting it the next day.” Estes re-emphasized the need to expand the image, not change it, by having it be recognized as world class spirit alongside the finest Scotches and Cognacs.  One of the ways in which we could do so, he points out, is by serving it in appropriate vessels, ones that actually benefit the spirit.  Noting that when we shoot spirits, we rob whatever we’re shooting of its full expression of flavor. Glassware also helps to change the psychology of the consumer by presenting it in a way that makes the customer think “maybe Ill treat this differently, maybe Ill sip it.”

Suro discusses glasswareDavid Suro remarks that there over 500 detectable organoleptic elements in tequila, possibly more in mezcal (more than any one person could ever possibly detect alone)  making the case for appropriate glassware even more important.  According to Suro, to properly serve tequilas, you should have at least five different glasses, but that at his restaurants, he uses 25.“It all depends where the tequila is coming from and the terroir.”  To explain the effect of glassware, he notes how on the previous night while at Austin’s Bill Norris’ house, some of the guests, including Suro were unable to identify their own products when served in different glassware “I know my product Siembra Azul, I’ve been working on it for ten years, but when you put it in la copita, I was not able to identify my own baby.” Suro explains the basic rules of thumb for glassware for agave spirits, based on terroir. Tequilas from the highlands, he states work best in the Reidel tequila glass which resembles a hybrid between a champagne flute and a sherry glass, because of its ability capture the sweetness and floral components of that style. Lowland tequilas on the other hand benefit from being served in wide snifters which increase the flow to the mid palate.  All of the samples poured that day were served in Glencairn glasses (commonly regarded as the perfect glass for tasting Whisky) which work as a nice happy medium with its wide-ish bowl bottom and chimney style sides (shown above).  It is important to note that these experts consider the drinking vessel as a tool and not an aesthetic decision whether it were a Reidel stem, a Glencairn, a clay copita or half of a dried gourd which, apparently “is quite lovely.”

A note on terroir, while this is at best an oversimplification of a very complex topic, it will have to do. In general the concept of terroir is no different in the agave fields of Mexico as it is in the vineyards of Burgundy. Terroir refers to all of the variables from the earth that affect plant and change its flavor chacteristics from place to place: type of soil, climate, and elevation are the big three. In Mexico the regions known as Los Altos or the Highlands produce sweeter, fruitier and more floral tequilas. This is due to largely to the elevation and climate of the region which is drier and cooler which means plants live longer and can take longer to mature, and are therefore higher in sugar than their Lowland counterparts.  Not to be overlooked is the soil, which, in the Highlands is deep, fertile, and high in minerals such as iron. (Most, around 60%, of tequila is made in the Highlands). The Lowlands on the other hand produce Tequilas which are drier, spicier (peppery) and overall, more ‘masculine.’ Again it all comes down to climate, elevation and soil. The lowlands, being lower in elevation are warmer and wetter and the plants ripen more rapidly resulting in a shorter, mineral forward, dry finish.   Like with wine, the concept of terroir can be expanded to also take into account other plants grown in the vicinity, like roses that are planted near the vulnerable pinot noir grapes, citrus grown near the agave fields is thought to contribute a flavor/aroma element to the tequila, as was evidenced in the Siembra Azul.

Tomas on single ranch tequila

Taking the idea further, Tomas Estes makes his Tequila Ocho (in collaboration with Carlos Camarena) from single ranches not unlike single vineyard wine. The example we tasted was from the Las Pomas Ranch in The Lowlands and bore a reposado age statement. The nose was sweet and earthy displaying notes of straw, clay, cinnamon with agave character poking through the subtle barrel notes. David Suro described it as being a  “beautiful balance between barrel and agave.” On the tongue, Ocho starts off sweet, moves into a mid palette flourish of caramel, and finishes earthy and coffee like.  The Lowland plants sourced for this tequila are intentionally very ripe  which not only creates more sugars, but also adds extra acidity that helps balance the sweetness and forms the structural backbone, supporting the other components. Estes is quick to point out that he prefers tequila in its purest form or unaged, i.e.: blanco, plata, silver, “Anybody that really gets into agave spirits goes towards a silver,” but that for this reposado he was careful not to interfere with the Agave character too much. To do this, he uses barrels that have been fatigued or really used (Ocho uses barrels that have been filled and refilled up to seven times), resulting in less char, less tannin and overall less interference. In addition to using these less intrusive, fatigued barrels, in Ocho, Estes and Camarena age the tequilas for the minimum legal requirement, meaning that the blanco is unaged, the reposado is just over two months old, anejo 12 months and their extra anejo is only matured for 36 months. According to Estes, “The longer any spirit is in a barrel the more they start approximating one another” indicating that after so many years, it becomes harder to tell tequila from rum from whiskey from brandy and so on.  Although Tomas does suggest using a reposado or anejo as a way to introduce the spirit to people who generally “don’t drink tequila” or had a bad experience in college.  The additional oak and taming of agave character can make it more accessible to those who primarily drink whisk(e)ys or brandies, which is why tequila producers began aging the spirit in the first place some 5o years ago: to compete with the other major spirits categories.

“Its rumored that Cuervo uses agave.”

Cooper explains the mezcal processNext up was artist, sculptor, spiritual shaman and Mescalero, Ron Cooper, creator of critically acclaimed Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals.  Of his craft, Cooper states, “ I am an artist, I have the right to work in any medium whatsoever,”  and he views his mezcals, not as a commercial enterprise, but as an art project. Of the 28-30 types of agave legally allowed to be used in mezcal production, Ron is currently using 6 to 7. The plants are called magueys, mezcal and agave. Much of Mezcal production uses the Espadin (Spanish for spear or sword) varietal, however the mezcal we tasted Tuesday, which Ron dubbed “the missing link” was produced from Blue Weber Agave (the varietal used in tequila production in Jalisco.) Blue Weber Agave doesn’t normally grow in Oaxaca, but was introduced to the region during the agave shortage of 2002-05.  During this time, Jalisco producers exported thousands of tons of the Espadin grown in Oaxaca to Jalisco to keep the factories going. Those producers later brought baby Blue Agave plants back down to Oaxaca so that they wouldn’t have to use Espadin in the case of another shortage.  Ironically, Espadin is the genetic mother of Blue Agave.  We essentially had a hybrid; Blue Agave prepared in the ancient ways of Mezcal.  They are roasted the ancient way, bat ground or stone milled, rested in shade for a week to start fermentation, followed by a slow distillation in low volume, small stills and, distilled to proof, meaning that no water has been added. (The fact that it has been distilled to proof is very rare in the spirits biz, as most distillers distill high, then bring the spirits back down to bottle proof using water.)  What we had in our glasses in front of us is more like what tequila would have originally tasted like before industrialization, “what tequila should taste like.” The flavor of this San Luis Del Rio (2011, 8th distillation of this village) single village mezcal was sweet and fruity with up front containing notes of ripe stone fruit alongside bright green bursts, followed by the signature mezcal smokiness and a lingering minerality. Seeing how the blue agave responded to the traditional mezcal treatment  was truly a treat.  This was easily the best spirits seminar I have ever had the pleasure to attend.

Recap: glassware is important, terroir matters: highlands= sweeter, fruitier; lowlands=drier more masculine, aging is over rated.

That wraps up the tasting portion of the seminar.  In part two, I’ll recap the portion regarding the Tequila Interchange Project which includes industrialization, migration, social impact, and more.

photos and post: Alex Gregg

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